Hundreds of people remain living in shelters as the storm recovery effort continues. Given the extensive recovery process, the shelters likely will be in operation for some time, according to officials.
“This is just the beginning,” said Carol Cohen, executive director of the Southern Shore chapter of the American Red Cross, which operates 27 shelters across the state, including five in Atlantic County. “This is going to be a long process.”
While some people have been able to leave the shelters and return to their homes, others are recent arrivals who, after returning to their homes, found they couldn’t stay due to the extent of the storm damage. Still others are Atlantic City residents who might have stayed for the storm but crossed over to the mainland only to find that they weren’t being allowed to re-enter the city due to barrier island travel restrictions.
Evacuees reported varying experiences with the multiple shelters in the region, with several residents at the Red Cross shelter based at the Pleasantville High School reporting their stay had been as pleasant as could be expected.
“They’ll accommodate you any way they can,” Jim Ennever, 64, of Ventnor said of the Red Cross. “Considering what’s been going on, this is not bad.”
Earlier this week, some evacuees at the Atlantic City High School complained about inadequate conditions. But since the Red Cross took over operating the shelter Thursday — after learning of its existence, nonprofit officials said — conditions appeared to have improved, several residents said.
“I’ve been here since Monday,” said Janelle Oliver, 45, of Atlantic City. “They’re doing a better job now that the Red Cross got here.”
Christopher Pennington, the Red Cross shelter manager for the high school, said as of noon Thursday, 122 residents were being served. More equipment and supplies were being brought in, he said.
“We got all of that rolling,” Pennington said. “We’re handing out snacks.”
Both Oliver and Anthony Keyes, 47, of Atlantic City, said Mayor Lorenzo Langford and other officials visited the shelter Thursday but had few answers for residents, who wanted to know more about the storm response, and more importantly, when they could return to their homes.
“They should have answers,” Keyes said.
Still, Keyes said he didn’t blame the mayor, though he believed a long-simmering feud between Langford and Gov. Chris Christie may have come at the residents’ expense.
“The... communication between the mayor and governor could have been a lot better,” Keyes said.
Trying to give evacuees more information about the state of the recovery effort was the hardest task facing workers at any of the shelters, said Cohen, who was based in the Pleasantville shelter, which, when combined with the shelter at the middle school across the street, accommodated 450 people at its height .
“The hardest thing is not having the instantaneous information to give people,” she said.
Margate resident Kathryn Rade, 55, remembered the first night she stayed in the Pleasantville High School shelter.
“It’s like camping out with strangers,” she said. “The first two hours you are out of sorts. But you’d be amazed at how fast something you’re not accustomed to feels easier.”
Rade and Liz Ulmer, 85, another Margate resident, said the hardest part was adjusting to the cots, which can be hard on the back. After five days, the two were looking forward to boarding a bus that would return them home. Officials were allowing Margate, Longport and Brigantine residents to return to their homes.
This would be the first time since the storm struck that these Margate residents would see the condition of their homes.
“We don’t know what you’re coming back to,” Rade said. “This is the point you stop and pray.”
For volunteers at the shelter, the experience was a much more rewarding one than they would have thought. Carla and Sedona Hill, a Smithville mother-daughter duo who volunteered at the Pleasantville shelter, said talking to evacuees and hearing their stories of loss made them thankful their house only sustained damage to a few shingles.
“When you look at what people are going through, we are totally blessed,” the elder Hill said.
“It doesn’t compare,” Sedona said.
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